This is my Jewish Journey. About this journey there is nothing geopolitical; there is simply me: my parents, my upbringing, my defection, and my return. This JCC and my children brought me back from the dark side. And here we go…
My parents grew up in Winnipeg, Canada. My mother’s maternal grandparents traveled from Russia to Canada when my mother’s mother was six years old. They had absolutely nothing and raised five children during the Depression. They were devout, maintained a kosher home, believed in and practiced tzedakah, and were shomer Shabbat. My great-grandmother was the quintessential balubusta.
My mother had a completely Jewish upbringing. Everyone went to Jewish day schools where the teachers were Holocaust survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. And everybody belonged to Jewish organizations: BBG, Habonim, YMHA, etc. Every Saturday night there was a dance at the Y. All Jews, all denominations.
My father’s experience was very different from my mother’s. It was his parents who came over from Russia as adults, independently, and met and married in Winnipeg. They only spoke Yiddish in the home. My father grew up in an area that was predominantly Jewish, the inner city of Winnipeg that resembled the Lower East Side of New York. He was a Jewish kid growing up in a strict Orthodox home. He wore glasses and took violin lessons and went to after school “cheder” where they learned rote prayers in Yiddish for bar mitzvah prep.
But my father suffered because he was the only Jewish kid in his public elementary school and high school. By this age, most of his Jewish neighbors had moved a few blocks away to the “better” part of town. His parents, however, were tied to his home because his father, a salesman, needed his backyard warehouse. His closest neighbors, and therefore classmates, were anti-Semitic Ukranian and Polish kids who brutalized him, chased him after school and bullied him.
I grew up in Great Neck, New York–no conflict for miles around. Great Neck is a town on Long Island for all Jews living in the diaspora. My parents sent me to a Jewish day school for elementary school, North Shore Hebrew Academy, and transferred me to public school when I reached sixth grade.
I had a strong Jewish upbringing, in a traditional, Conservative home. We were strictly kosher and kept a never-go-out-on-Friday-night rule. My family and I went to shul every Saturday morning, Temple Israel of Great Neck, under the auspices of world-renowned Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, may his memory be a blessing.
I went to camp Ramah in the Berkshires for ten years, first as a camper, then to Israel on Seminar, then as a counselor. For those ten years I was as Jewish as they come. I came home every summer insisting on wearing skirts on Friday nights, walking to shul on Saturday mornings (not so close) and following Shabbat to the letter.
Hebrew High School was the focus of my social life. I spent many afternoons within its walls and made my closest friends with whom I played, prayed and even traveled to Israel.
Then I went to college, Tufts University, just outside of Boston, which was 40-50% Jewish. My parents were THRILLED! They figured I was locked and loaded.
But it was my transition to college that also marked my transition away from Judaism. Maybe it was because I was “sheltered” until that point. Maybe it was from living in an environment that dipped below 40% Jewish. Maybe it was being away from my parents for the first time in my life. Who knows?
Everyone at one point or another has to rebel, to find his/her inner turmoil. For some it’s piercings. For some it’s drugs. For me? It was shrimp. And a chicken fajita with sour cream. And dating the first non-Jewish guy I ever met. My parents were less thrilled than they had been before. To this day, I can honestly say I have no idea where the Tufts Hillel is or was. I never laid eyes on it nor stepped foot inside.
In fairness, maybe because it made me different, I stayed kosher for almost the full four years, no small feat since I lived with my five closest friends, all of whom were NOT Jewish. But they respected me and my practices completely, even allowing me to have my own cabinet and drawer in our tiny kitchen for my kosher plates and flatware.
I graduated from college and moved to New York City, where I had no draw to Judaism as a young, single woman. I didn’t do the things other Jews did to meet each other. I didn’t go to Hillel. I didn’t join BJ. I didn’t hang out at the JCC on the Upper West Side or the 92nd street Y on the Upper East. I didn’t think about being Jewish at all. I celebrated the holidays with my family, went to shul twice a year and called it a day.
Of course, luckily, I did meet a nice Jewish boy, Brian, but I’d call the Jewish part of the relationship lucky at best. He grew up in a traditional Reform Jewish household, and had a very similar, mostly non-existent practice of Judaism.
When Brian and I decided to get married, we were firmly grounded in what I’ll call our “once-a-year Jews” lifestyle. When we met with the esteemed Rabbi Mordecai Waxman in preparation for our wedding, he called us, and I quote, “PARASITES on the Jewish community, taking advantage of those to whom the word “Jewish” meant something ‘REAL.'” Amen.
Let’s fast forward to adulthood in California.
After going through the HEINOUS preschool process in New York, Mallory was accepted to what I considered the best preschool on the Upper West Side. The best, by my criteria, meant that it was two blocks away from our apartment. I was thrilled.
Then we decided to move to California, and I knew we’d have to go through the process all over again. Terrified, I called my sister-in-law who said, “There’s no question. You’ll send her to the JCC.”
The first day of school I dropped off Mallory, two-and-a-half years old. I knew no one. Most of the parents ran off with major plans for their whole two-and-a-half hours of free time. I rolled Annie, then six months old and still in the bucket, to a picnic table by the front gate, sat down, and cried.
I can tell you now that was the moment the “community-ness” of the JCC became a reality for me. Two moms sat down by my side. They didn’t know me, had never seen me before, but could sense my obvious distress and took it upon themselves to help me. They made sure that for those two and a half hours I was not alone. I will never forget this.
As we all know Shabbat is a very important aspect of the preschool. They talk about it all week. They bake Challah. They celebrate in class. You can even buy a Challah and have it delivered to the classroom so having a Challah at home on Friday nights becomes too easy to avoid.
I had celebrated Shabbat every single Friday growing up, yet never once on my own as an adult. But because of the JCC we began to celebrate at home. If we skipped a week my kids complained. So we didn’t skip. We lit the candles, sang the songs, blessed the wine and ate the Challah. And before I knew it, it was not only important to my children, it was to me as well. Shabbat marked a separation of the week, and I looked forward to it as much as they did.
After three years at the preschool my entire social life revolved around the JCC families. I thought everyone on the Peninsula was Jewish. Then Mallory started kindergarten and I was shocked to learn that she was one of three Jewish kids in the entire class of 60. But to be quite honest, it never dawned on me that she’d actually notice. Boy, was I wrong.
The second week of school I picked her up on Friday afternoon, and a smiling Mallory walked out of the classroom. As she walked toward me, however, her eyes welled up and she started to sob. “Mallory! What’s wrong?” I asked her, alarmed. “Mom,” she cried… “THERE’S NO SHABBAT!”
From the mouths of babes. My five-year-old missed Shabbat. Be it the songs, the tradition, the ruach…the cinnamon sugar. Something was missing in her heart. That Monday we called Beth Am and enrolled her in the Sunday Program. Once she started it was almost as if we could feel her huge sense of relief.
Shabbat at home has since become even more important. And at their public school I have become the “Jewish Mom”–the one who comes in to talk about Rosh Hashanah and teach the kids how to spin a dreidel during Chanukah. The “expert” to whom the teachers turn with questions. To my public school friends I am an Orthodox Jew, the extreme. Don’t plan anything with Hilary on a Friday night, she doesn’t go out, it’s Shabbat.
My children thrive on our Judaism, it’s a tremendous source of pride for them. When the school choir sang “Al Shlosha Devarim” at the winter concert, sandwiched between a medley of Christmas Carols, Mallory’s pride from the stage was palpable.
So… l’dor va dor. Am I the bridge between the hard-core Jewish upbringing of my parents’ parents and the JCC-inspired Judaism of my children? I don’t know. But what I DO know is that I am grateful to my parents for instilling a love of Judaism so deep within me that even though I lost it for many years in the middle, finding my way back was easy and meaningful.
And I’m grateful to my children for reminding me about what’s important, AND FOR INSPIRING ME TO CONTINUE OUR JEWISH JOURNEY WITH THEM FROM NOW INTO THE FUTURE.